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Soundcheck Smackdown: Aja

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Steely Dan’s 1977 album “Aja” rebelled against the disco and rock hits of the day and achieved a new level of smooth. As of this year, the Library of Congress has also deemed it so culturally and aesthetically significant that it's now going to be preserved in the National Recording Registry. Following up on our review of the 25 sound recordings that were most recently given this honor, we Smackdown Steely Dan's "Aja" with St. Petersburg Times media critic Eric Deggans and freelance music critic Alex V. Cook.


Alex V. Cook and Eric Deggans

Comments [56]

joyce from Detroit

I love Steely Dan and Aja. How soft rock and too perfect can you be when you are named after a dildo from William Burroughs Naked Lunch?
The idea that this music is "too perfect" is just the same old hipper than thou pose. I am a jazz fan - was for years before this - and I do not judge jazz by Aja or Aja by jazz. C'mon people.

Apr. 20 2011 02:32 PM

Another pointless "discussion". I'm subtracting $$ from my WNYC donation.

Apr. 20 2011 12:52 PM
Phil from Brooklyn

With Steely Dan, it's about the lyrics. Always. The juxtaposition of their bleak, bitter, ennui-laden words with that clinically smooth jazz is chilling. Taking this into account, their records become brilliant critiques of the modern world. If you hate Steely Dan, or hate Aja, try listening one more time...paying attention to the lyrics!

Apr. 20 2011 11:22 AM
Marc from Asia

Thanks! Now, I've Got the News

Apr. 19 2011 11:21 PM

This is a great LP , But The Royal Scam SMOKES this.

Apr. 19 2011 09:12 PM

For further reference about The Making of Aja:

Apr. 19 2011 02:57 PM
Richard Campbell from NYC

The musicianship on AJA is amazing. The interplay between Stevie Gadd on drums & Wayne Shorter on sax, at around 4:30-5 minutes into AJA, was some of the most brilliant playing I had ever heard. I played it over & over & over when it came out. And then Stevie Gadd took it even more over the top during the last minute of the track..... It stills thrills me to listen to that.

Apr. 19 2011 02:50 PM

Pretty Purdie weighs in heavily on Aja:

Apr. 19 2011 02:49 PM

I'm a SD fan from the beginning. I have 5 copies of Aja-2 are Mobile Fidelity recordings and one is unopened. That being said, I think the proof of the greatness of this recording is in the opinions of musicians, who without reservation would say this is a truly great album. If you take SD from "Can't Buy A Thrill" to "Aja" you see a progression from a mix of rock/jazz/pop to 'something unique (then and now) in music-not jazz, not pop, not rock but something new and wonderful. I love Led Zeppelin as much as the next guy and certainly appreciate the musicianship of that band. But SD took, in my opinion, musicianship, recording - the whole experience to a new level. Just listen to the introduction to "Home At Last" on Aja. I could go on and on....good call Library of Congress. Finally Washington does something right.

Apr. 19 2011 02:47 PM

'm a SD fan from the beginning. I have 5 copies of Aja-2 are Mobile Fidelity recordings and one is unopened. That being said, I think the proof of the greatness of this recording is in the opinions of musicians, who without reservation would say this is a truly great album. If you take SD from "Can't Buy A Thrill" to "Aja" you see a progression from a mix of rock/jazz/pop to 'something unique (then and now) in music-not jazz, not pop, not rock but something new and wonderful. I love Led Zeppelin as much as the next guy and certainly appreciate the musicianship of that band. But SD took, in my opinion, musicianship, recording - the whole experience to a new level. Just listen to the introduction to "Home At Last" on Aja. I could go on and on....good call Library of Congress. Finally Washington does something right.

Apr. 19 2011 02:44 PM
Soundcheck Producer

Today's show has introduced a new conversational thread. Heather from Maryland/DC fessed up. Any other Styx fans?

Apr. 19 2011 02:40 PM

For reals-- this is an extraordinary video on youtub about The Making of Peg (from Aja)...

If you truly hate Steely Dan, it may change your mind (as if anyone is open to changing their minds, right?):

Apr. 19 2011 02:38 PM
Laura Copple from Scottsdale, AZ

Only a handful of albums from this period have remained as timeless as AJA. It still holds up in every respect. The complexity of rhythms and chord progressions thrilled me in a sea of 3 chord bands of the time. The use of space in Fagan's fastidious arrangements on the tune Aja, represent an artistry not obsessed with a wall of sound so prevalent in other bands. (I'm a girl, btw)

Apr. 19 2011 02:38 PM
Ben from Ditmas Park

There's no accounting for taste. That said, I think the real issue is expectations. Look at where the band started. With a lot of great rock and roll albums under their belts, (Pretzel Logic, Can't Buy a Thrill), they did something different in 1977. I'm a fan of Rock and Roll, AND a big fan of Jazz. Steely Dan happens to have done both, specifically mixed them in an interesting way on AJA.

Apr. 19 2011 02:32 PM
howard from Park Slope

Test Case:

1) Did you think of The Turtles exhibited ironic self-awareness?
2) Same question in re Steely Dan?

Hypothesis: Answer to #1 and #2 will be the same.

Apr. 19 2011 02:31 PM
Luis from NJ

Would you've complaining about how well it
Was played if you were discussing Yo Yo Ma
Or Glen Gould?

Apr. 19 2011 02:30 PM

Are you kidding me?

You searched far and wide to find a guy who writes for an offbrand website, who was all of 8 years old when Aja was pressed to offer his considered opinion on Steely Dan (along with Styx)?

Okay, so it's no easy task to find a fool for the job, but I am gritting my teeth listening to his deep analysis, as he back peddles, dropping references to Richard Lloyd's Television to establish his creditability.

The caliber of musicians and output of Steely Dan are unmatched; they are without peers in popular music. Their lyrics are extraordinary. They are musician's musicians, if not composer's composers.

It's sophistication that you are smacking down with your tawdry carnival act.

This is unforgivable, and proves that you are a filthy swine!

Were this nation not out of control with activist judges, I would challenge you to a duel at sunrise.

So I will only say this-- repent fools, the end is near!

Apr. 19 2011 02:29 PM
Raycroft from Brooklyn (Holds the Charmer Under Me)

Here is the Yacht Rock episode. Brilliant!

Apr. 19 2011 02:29 PM
jim macnie from BK

the band's frozen emotions began in the songs of the royal scam, and trickled through to gaucho and fagan's the nightfly. but you've gotta respect the craft of aja. it's a record that wears rubber gloves while cleaning the library - even with the jazz inflections. call it the opposite of emo. the library of congress should have chosen katy lied, though. that's their masterwork.

Apr. 19 2011 02:28 PM
Vinny_G from Upper West Side NYC

De gustibus non est disputandum

Apr. 19 2011 02:28 PM

Aja, great album! Just listened to it the other day. Beautifully recorded. Is a standard.

Apr. 19 2011 02:26 PM
heather from maryland/dc

So funny that you have this show today. I stumbled on a Steely Dan song from Aja last week while scanning the radio. I asked myself for the millionth time who the heck likes this plastic easy listening??? So, now your show answers that for me. Great topic.
That being said, as a child of the 70s I used to love Styx's Grand Illusion (still do). So there is no accounting for taste I guess.

Apr. 19 2011 02:25 PM
Nick from UWS

I've never met a woman who likes Steely Dan.

Apr. 19 2011 02:24 PM
Paul R. from UES

Can you explain who at the Library of Congress decides what recordings are to be entered into the National Recording Registry, and what the mechanism is? Is there a poll? Is there a committee? Is the public involved, other than by the album's sales statistics?

Apr. 19 2011 02:24 PM
Alistair Wallace from mid-town

Aja is a great album. Having said that, click link below from the Onion:,2601/

Apr. 19 2011 02:23 PM
Raycroft from Brooklyn

The best comparison of Aja and 70's rock is done through the 'Yacht Rock' episode which satires the rival between The Dan and The Eagles. Hysterical and relevant!

Apr. 19 2011 02:22 PM
Richard from New York, NY

Re Nick from UWS Apr. 19 2011 02:16 PM

> Are Glenn Gould's recordings of Bach too perfect?

Never mind Gould or any other performer: are the Goldberg Variations too perfect?

I think the core of this debate is simple: is perfection (or the goal thereof) a good or bad thing?

Apr. 19 2011 02:22 PM
KP from NJ

For CityDweller....they may make movies for teens, but when it comes to shopping (think songs in car ads too) they play the music of the people with the most money...those in middle age. When I was younger they played my parents music and now that I'm middle-aged, they play the music of my teens and 20's. Someday you'll be rummaging in the frozen dinners and they'll be playing Lady Gaga and your kids will wonder how that ever could have been cool.....

Apr. 19 2011 02:22 PM
Kelly from Brooklyn

Love Aja! Great songs that bring back happy memories. Good music for walking over the bridge.
An old boyfriend maintained that "Everyone thinks they're supposed to like Steely Dan, but they really don't."- One of our big disagreements.

Apr. 19 2011 02:21 PM
Angela from Brooklyn

I don't understand and never will why people love this album - I hate Steely Dan.

Apr. 19 2011 02:21 PM
Jack Macco from Astoria

Sadly, I haven't been over exposed to this material & it stands on it's own whether or not it's being inducted by "the man".
My lasting memory of this material is cruising down to Jones Beach with friends in a beatup 70's covertible, after being horribly dumped in August 1996. It gave me release from a bad situation. Great music heightens the episodes of our lives.

Apr. 19 2011 02:21 PM
David from Brooklyn

I've always hated Steely Dan, and always will, for all the reasons you've mentioned. Soul-less, dorky, knob-twiddling for knob-twiddling's sake - BUT I think Aja probably does deserve to be included in the recordings registry, if for no other reason than that there are very few records that could inspire this kind of philosophical debate amongst passionate intelligent listeners. Chalk me up as loyal opposition, I guess.

Apr. 19 2011 02:21 PM
Jessica from NYC

I can't help but be reminded of the new dance premieres by David Parsons, some of which is a tribute to Steely Dan. Totally incongruous to what I've loved and admired in Parsons and his vibrant choreography. My only attempt to explain the choice in music perhaps ties in to this very praise that Steely Dan evokes (d) in the 70s.

Apr. 19 2011 02:20 PM
mark from NJ

All accusations of perfectionism will never make Donald Fagen's voice a beautiful instrument. Dat nasal Noo Yawk squawk is the cry of the goose, reaching for swan-dom, trying and ultimately failing -- but what an effort to admire!

Apr. 19 2011 02:20 PM
Carey from Carbondale, IL

It's really amazing what they accomplished in the studio considering the year it was made. But it's Steely Dan, and they can't spell.

Berklee garbage.

Apr. 19 2011 02:19 PM
MimI from Brooklyn

I like Steely Dan and I'm a girl. Love, Peg

Apr. 19 2011 02:19 PM
Adrienne from Inwood

If the opening of "FM" doesn't do it for you, someone should check your pulse. This is a brilliant album and therefore a brilliant choice by the Library of Congress. I love this album. Too perfect? No such thing.

Apr. 19 2011 02:19 PM
art525 from Park Slope

The early 70s were an awful time for music. Steely Dan, The Eagles, Super Tramp, Jackson Browned filled the airwaves. It was such a BIG relief when punk and new wave came in. For anyone in NYC at the time I think the station was WPIX. Elvis Costello even did a testimonial to try to save the station when he played a concert here. It didn't save the station. All that other stuff listed above was lite FM jazz. I hated Steely Dan. I pictured a young movie exec dressed in his Armani suit cruising Mulholland Drive late at night in his BMW, starlet at his side, a little cocaine still on his nostrils feeling very satisfied with his world as he played Steely Dan as his soundtrack on his stereo.

Apr. 19 2011 02:18 PM
Kevin from Mamaroneck

Can your guests please compare Aja to other similar albums such as Joni Mitchell's "Court and Spark" or some of Billy Joel's from that period? Mitchell's in particular seems to have more heart/passion than Aja.

Apr. 19 2011 02:18 PM
Raymond Helfrich from from NYC but am now in NJ

Glad you're doing this. Was/am always ambivalent about (everything from) Steely Dan. I get that it's 'good'--and certainly that many folks love it--but I just never liked it. What the heck are the songs about, that everyone is singing along with them? Great studio musicians, with tasty licks, of course, but kid stuff.

Apr. 19 2011 02:18 PM
Alonzo Wright from Harlem, NYC

This a true masterpiece. It also set a standard that many others tried to copy.
It raised the bar.

Apr. 19 2011 02:18 PM
riffle from NYC

Aja is great -- its the clash between the utterly twisted lyrical content and the glossy but ballsy music that makes it wonderful.

You can't forget the oddball funny/sad/mature lyrics of Steely Dan!

Apr. 19 2011 02:18 PM
Mitch from NYC

Jazz pop/fusion/influence is a thing of the past. Because of that short window, a few critics will pick on Aja for being a slick time-capsule. But in the 70's most of the great music was also jazz-influenced - Joni Mitchell, Earth Wind and Fire, Stevie Wonder.

Steely Dan, which was first and foremost a group of professional musicians and engineers, brought technique and songwriting together in a new, creative, and influential way.

As often happens, critics pick on professionals as being soulless, when in fact they are just superior.

Apr. 19 2011 02:17 PM
Rick from NYC

hate Steely Dan? You might as well hate music! Alex might suffer from excess ear wax...or just poor taste!

too perfect?!?! is there such a thing? if anything, AJA is a MONUMENTAL effort to be aspired to, not looked down upon for its drive towards perfection!

Apr. 19 2011 02:17 PM
Frank Schorn from Glendale, Queens, NY

I would pick The Royal Scam as better than Aja, but they are both good albums.

Apr. 19 2011 02:17 PM
Nick from UWS

Too perfect? Are Glenn Gould's recordings of Bach too perfect?

Apr. 19 2011 02:16 PM
Siouxie from Bronx

Gotta weigh in! I totally understand the ambivalence about Steely Dan. I felt the same - dammit, they were ALWAYS on the radio. I resented it.

Then, in 2009 saw SD live at the Beacon and was completely blown away. Say what you want about their songs or style, but these guys are superior musicians.

Apr. 19 2011 02:13 PM
Michael CB from Manhattan

Behind the gloss, wankish musicianship and pop hooks, Steely Dan had a wickedly sharp, dark sense of humor. Look at the origin of their name: a dildo mentioned in "Naked Lunch".

Apr. 19 2011 02:13 PM
Peter from Morristown, NJ

Aja is an epic, pinnacle album. Many great bands achieve one great album that is a culmination of their work and their evolution. Like Sargeant Pepper for the Beatles, Let it Bleed for the Stones, Rumors for Fleetwood Mac and others, Aja represents a musical group at the top of their creative and popular best. It's complex, fun, jazzy, with great pop tunes and intelligent perplexing lyrics. Saying it's too smooth is like saying Bach's fugues or Coltranes solos are too perfect.

Apr. 19 2011 02:13 PM
Rich K from UCNJ

Deceptively glossy and crystal clean? Yes. Smooth pop? Only if you're not paying the least attention. Aja's production polish hides a dark and deliciously twisted heart. And Steve Gadd's drumming on Aja did to drummers what Hendrix's stand at the Marquee Club did to guitarists.

Apr. 19 2011 02:12 PM

I'm a relatively young listener and Steely Dan is way before my time, but I think they're quite good.

The problem is that we hear this music while rummaging through piles of frozen dinners in our local supermarket. Someone else more elloquent than I should chime in here, but It really takes away something from the music when it's used in this manner.

Apr. 19 2011 02:12 PM
joe from manhattan

its syrup set the stage for the sex pistols vinegar

Apr. 19 2011 02:11 PM
Vinny_G from Upper West Side NYC

Love the album,,, extremely musical, what are the haters thinking,, except for the obvious: NOTHING!!!

Apr. 19 2011 02:10 PM
Mark Wills from Washington, DC

Steely Dan is a seminal artist of the 1970s -- epitomizing the tones on both coasts -- and "Aja" is at the apex of their studio wizardry. When you then take into account the fact that riffs from that album have been sampled over and over and over, it seems pretty clear that it's a vital work.

Apr. 19 2011 02:08 PM
Nick from UWS

"Aja" is a beautiful mature album, made by men, not boys, a powerful musical accomplishement, and a logical progression from their previous work.

Fans don't like the unfolding of real talent. Fans are like small children who want to be told the same exact story over and over again.

Apr. 19 2011 02:03 PM
Mike Errico from NYC

I picture a great composer in an airless room.

Apr. 19 2011 02:01 PM

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